Like everyone else, our writers excitedly checked out the first Star Wars anthology film, Rogue One, over the weekend. Below, a handful of them share some thoughts on the film.
Putting The War In Star Wars
Andrew Husband: On the one hand, claiming Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to feature an actual “war” is somewhat disingenuous. All seven of the previous Star Wars films have included aspects of the galactic war forged between the Empire and the Rebellion in the original trilogy, or the conflicts that led to its occurrence in the prequel films — including the “Clone Wars.” On the other hand, none of the seven dug anywhere near as deep into the grittier aspects of wartime combat operations as Rogue One. Where George Lucas’ movies and J.J. Abrams’ continuation play more like space operas, Gareth Edwards’ standalone seems like it wants to venture into territory occupied by bona fide war pictures like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge. It never quite gets there, but the final act’s beach assault on Scarif comes closer than anything else before it in the Star Wars canon.
Dan Seitz: The wars in Star Wars are almost always pop culture references of some sort; it’s easy to forget Lucas, in addition to being a high-toned cineaste, loves the hell out of serials and other forgotten B-movies.. The X-wing battles owe a lot to the relatively obscure war movie The Dam Busters, among other “flying hero” movies, the prequels had these vast, formal elaborate sequences that were almost dance numbers with precise armies of droids unfurling, feeling like Cecil B. DeMille, and one critic hilariously pointed out there’s a bit in Attack of The Clones that’s more or less from The Navy Vs. The Night Monsters. Yes that’s a real movie.
There’s definitely some of that here; this movie romanticizes death much like WWII movies do. But I think it speaks to Edwards’ frame of reference and how the war movie has changed. I don’t think Lucas really could have made this movie in 1977.
Jill Pantozzi: When discussing the “politics” of Star Wars last week, I reminded everyone the franchise started with the intent of comparing it to real-world events. Lucas took cues from the first and second World Wars as well as Vietnam for his stories and I think that last one especially has a heavy influence on Rogue One when you look at their last assault on the beach. It’s gritty, it’s real, it’s pretty difficult to watch. We’ve seen “death” in Star Wars plenty of times but never like this.
Donna Dickens: I touch on this a little further down the line, but Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie that doesn’t let you forget people are dying for this cause. The original trilogy focuses so heavily on the Skywalker family that the cost of war is mere background noise while the prequels glossed over the atrocities of battle by having droids fight clones. The closest thing audiences have seen to this level of violence in a galaxy far, far away is the Jedi Purge and Anakin’s slaughter of the younglings. I agree with Andrew that Rogue One swings for fences with the reality of a rebel ground force fighting against the overpowered behemoth that is the Empire. Future generations of fans will see this film as “Baby’s First War Movie.” It’s gritty — and let’s face it, downright depressing at the end — but couches the violence in a veneer of bloodless palatability to keep it from crossing the line into “Baby’s First Traumatic Movie Experience.”
Donna: It seems unfair to ask me to pick a single favorite character as each member of Rogue One was simultaneously indispensable and completely one-dimensional. If asked for the motivation of anyone besides Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), I’d have to respond with a shrug emoji. But such is the case when you’re juggling an ensemble cast and finite amount of time. Yes, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is sassy and yes Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is hard-as-nails and arguably a borderline villain in his own right. But if pressed, I’d have to say Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey/Stephen Stanton), the Mon Calamari leader of the Scarif attack. A weird choice? Probably. But even with limited screen time Raddus proves himself to be a consummate leader. During the war room scene, he argues that Jyn is right and the Alliance must fight. He goes against orders to take an entire battalion to help Rogue One in their mission. He even spearheads an amazing piece of military stratagem involving two Star Destroyers and a Hammerhead ship. I don’t know, something about his resolute stance and compassion for those lost under his command just really got me.
Jill: Well I’ll just go ahead and say it because I know I’m not alone: Tudyk’s K-2SO was tops. But I’ll admit it might be because of what you said, Donna, that so many of the other characters lacked the kind of development we come to expect from a Star Wars film. Hell, any film. I don’t know if the large ensemble plus the amount of story they needed to get through prevented them from going more in depth but regardless, it left K-2SO as the standout for me. Not only was he the obvious comedy relief, he also might have been the only character in the film who said what he meant and meant what he said.
Dan: While I love K-2SO, every movie must be subjected to a simple flowchart. Is Donnie Yen in this movie, and, if yes, is Donnie Yen kicking ass? The answer in Rogue One is “yes” to both questions, so Chirrut Imwe is the best character. Maybe this time around Yen will get better roles in Hollywood than Highlander and Blade sequels.
Andrew: I can’t help but prefer complexity, and as Donna noted from the start, not many of Rogue One’s central and supporting characters were that deep. Yet writing a well-developed character, or turning a mediocre one into something more via a performance, doesn’t require too many script pages or minutes on screen. Hence why the more I think about Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera (whose name is eerily close to Che Guevara’s, the Cuban revolutionary), the more I love him. That he helped Jyn Erso to safety and, in various ways, aided her family throughout its exile sets him off on the right foot with the audience. But when we meet him in hiding on Jedah, he’s turned paranoid and violent — even capturing and torturing Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). What’s more, his progress through life is one of the film’s strongest representations of its chief subject, war, and the terrible traumas it can inflict on people.
How does it compare to The Force Awakens?
Jill: Right before I headed to the theater someone reminded me Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters a year ago and I almost couldn’t believe it. TFA had a big impact on me and I feel like I’ve been living with that story for several years, not just one. Obviously I knew going in Rogue One would have a very different feel and boy, did it. The one area I’ll say that The Force Awakens compares to Rogue One is the comedy-relief droid. Other than that, the two couldn’t be further apart. And that’s probably how it should be.
Dan: I have to agree with Jill, especially since Rogue One sunk so much time and effort into exactly imitating the look and feel of the original movies. Everything has that grimy ‘70s used future feel without being an overly obvious tribute (well, most of the time; see below), and it’s a much darker story. It’s still not the grimmest story in the Star Wars canon, but up there, and a pretty sharp contrast to The Force Awakens‘ new beginnings.
Donna: At our theater, there was one family with a toddler and about halfway through the first act, everyone knew those parents had made a huge mistake. I’m sure they saw The Force Awakens and thought Rogue One would be a similar romp. But, as you said Dan, the latter is one of the darkest entries into the Star Wars lore and explores some heavy themes, such as the atrocities committed by all sides in a war and how those actions psychologically scar the men and women carrying out orders. By comparison, The Force Awakens is child’s play. Despite Starkiller Base killing far more people, Episode VII remains aloof and the death of millions feels distant while Rogue One gets right in the audience’s face and forces them to remember people are dying.
Andrew: Not only does Rogue One force this horrible reality into everyone’s faces, but it also emphasizes the finality of it. Quite literally, it turns out, as this “standalone” film cannot possibly inspire a sequel given how everything turns out for the central players. In a way Rogue One reminds me of the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which two of the most unimportant characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are given their own story. Most of the characters featured in Rogue One didn’t necessarily exist before the film came to be, but their thoughts and actions revolved around events already well-established by the previous movies. As a result, almost everyone watching knew what was going to happen to them.
Meanwhile, The Force Awakens is very much the “new beginning” Dan referred to in terms of the story and its finality. That is to say, we don’t quite know where Episode VIII and Episode IX are going as those stories are breaking new ground and expanding the Star Wars mythos at every turn. Rogue One didn’t really have anywhere else to go, aside from filling in a few plot holes unearthed by A New Hope, so its ability to tell a more mature story dealing with weightier concepts like war and death was practically built into its framework.
Fan Service Everywhere
Dan: One thing that stood out to me was how it was apparently super-important we understand that this movie had a bunch of ties to A New Hope. Like, not seeing the Death Star wasn’t enough, we had to have Peter Cushing back from the dead and another CGI character at the end to remind us the Death Star plans were “Hope.” Krennic has a meeting with Darth Vader to get called out on performance targets. They even have those two guys Obi-Wan roughs up in the cantina bump shoulders with a character in Jedha for no good reason.
I’ve got to ask why. Well, I know why: Toy revenue. But the movie is full of tributes to the original trilogy that are far more subtle and work a lot better: K-S20’s anticipation of Han Solo sucking at improv, for example, or torpedoing (pardon the pun) every joke about Imperial engineering by revealing that exhaust port was intentional. Why not stick with those?
Andrew: The mouse-eared executives at Disney surely prize toy revenue (and other sources of income when it comes to their tentpole properties, though I doubt it was the reason Lucasfilm chose to plant so many references to the first film in Rogue One. After all, anyone with the smallest inkling of franchise knowledge will realize what the film’s getting at after the first few major beats. Yet the overabundance of callbacks — both big and little — does even more damage here than it did in The Force Awakens. For while J.J. Abrams et al. playfully wanted to add a few references here and there for the sake of the fans, Gareth Edwards (or the two new films’ common denominator, Lucasfilm) practically drowns the audience in finger-pointing. What results is a “standalone” movie that, despite that word’s use in the title, is never really given the chance to… you know… stand alone.
Donna: Say what you will about the ham-fisted insertion of fan service, but audiences love the little things. From the roughnecks on Jedha that later run afoul of Obi-Wan and Luke on Tatooine to a certain droid complaining no one ever tells him anything, people in my theater at least reacted with laughs and cheers. These touchstones can be grating — yes, we get it, Vader is wiping the floor with Rebel scum while the last Skywalker male is whining about moisture farming — but I don’t mind the the little winks. What I do mind are things like the unholy abomination that was CGI Peter Cushing. Having read the Rogue One: Catalyst novel, I knew Tarkin and Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) had a long, contentious relationship but my monkey brain was not okay with Tarkin’s uncanny valley face. I’d have been more happy with only seeing Tarkin from behind/reflected in glass or an actor with enough prosthetics to approximate the late Cushing’s gaunt features.
Jill: I’m not opposed to fan service. We all love it sometimes. But I agree there might have been just a touch too much. Yes, the Cushing stuff was off-putting for sure. The Leia reveal, while nice in theory, was strange. I think the same reaction could have been accomplished with someone shouting “Princess, you must leave NOW!” and her saying the hope line without facing the camera, looking out into the space ahead of them perhaps. On the positive side, as a Star Wars Rebels fan, I was delighted to see Hera’s Ghost in the mix at the end, even as I was concerned about their possible demise. (I don’t think Lucasfilm would have really been that mean.) I missed Chopper, sadly, but will look for the wonderful grump next time.
The best fan service though? Darth Vader using his skills. Holy cow. In the original trilogy, he didn’t really have to do much, here he knows the stakes and doesn’t hold back on the Rebel forces in his way. It’s truly frightening. It reminds you why people love the character so much (after perhaps developed mixed feelings tanks to the prequels) and I bet many were longing for something like this to unfold in the film. Used sparingly, Vader’s powers and presence have a fantastic effect on the audience.
Dan: Honestly, I preferred this to The Force Awakens. It’s a Star Wars movie that does something different with the franchise, and shifts the goal posts a little to offer something different from the main franchise. If we’re getting new Star Wars every year, and it’s up to this level, we may be looking forward to the even years instead of the odds.
Jill: The film was a bit slow to start for me but that ending. God, that ending. I can’t believe how hard I was gripping my seat! Even though I knew what was coming (basically), it still hit me like a sack of bricks. I’m actually really sad we won’t get to see more of this group. As we’ve already mentioned, the characters didn’t get enough development and another film would have been great for that but it was not meant to be. Also, where in the actual hell were all the women? As much as the female lead of this film was talked up over the last year or so, there was a severe lack of women spread throughout the film. While we had some pilots at the end, I didn’t notice any on the ground. And besides Mon Mothma, the only other woman who spoke at the Rebel meeting didn’t even get named on screen. I’m still digesting everything, and I’m going to see it a second time, but at this point I’m seeing so many different reactions from fans. I’m hoping everyone can be respectful and not get angry that someone didn’t fall head over heels for the film. One more thing: Donnie Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang Wen’s Baze are in a loving relationship, right? We’re all clear on that? OK. Good.
Andrew: Jill mentioned seeing Rogue One a second time, which should ring true with the fans who’ve already seen the movie at least once. After all, what truly makes us love Star Wars (prequels notwithstanding) is the fact that they’re so rewatchable. Yet there’s a thought I had after my screening on Thursday that I keep coming back to — I’m not sure whether or not I’ll see Rogue One a second time in theaters. I didn’t hate it, but I just wasn’t drawn in deep enough by its inconsistent pacing, underdeveloped characters, or its barely passing the Bechdel–Wallace test. That said, when it’s released on Blu-ray or begins airing on television, I’ll be the first in line to watch it then.
Donna: I completely agree that Rogue One sticks the landing in a way that had me questioning the outcome of the mission despite knowing they would ultimately succeed. But I do wish they’d chosen to focus more on Jyn’s journey from lone wolf rebel (so sad that ‘I rebel,’ didn’t make the final cut) to Alliance leader. I know Lucasfilm tries to keep their Star Wars runtimes around two hours, but with all the juggling necessary to get the squad gelled into a cohesive whole, another 20-30 minutes of character building would’ve been extremely welcome. As it stands, the frenetic pacing of the first two acts meant that by the time sacrifices had to be made in the final battle, I didn’t feel connected enough to the characters to be as distraught by their loss as the movie obviously wanted me to be. However, I highly applaud Disney for taking a chance on doing something different with the franchise. With a new addition coming each year, exploring new ways to tell stories in the Star Wars universe is the only way to keep the galaxy from getting stale.